Monday April 22, 2013

As heart-wrenching week ends, Texas town where plant exploded prays, plans -- and waits

WEST, Texas (AP) -- The First Baptist Church in the tiny Texas town where a fertilizer plant exploded is still off-limits, so the Rev. John Crowder put folding chairs in a hay pasture and improvised a pulpit on a truck flatbed. At the elementary school, an official carted extra desks and chairs into the only public school campus that’s left.

This was Sunday in West. Four days after the blast that killed 14 people and injured 200 others, residents prayed for comfort and got ready for the week ahead, some of them still waiting to find out when -- or if -- they will be able to go back home.

"We have lost our friends and neighbors. We lost the safety and comfort of our homes," said Crowder, raising his voice over the whirr of helicopters surveying the nearby rubble from overhead. "But as scary as this is, we don’t have to be afraid."

The explosion at the West Fertilizer Co. rocketed shrapnel across several blocks and left what assistant state fire marshal Kelly Kirstner described Sunday as "a large crater." A section of the flat farming town near the crater, including Crowder’s church, is still behind barricades.

One school campus was obliterated, and on the eve of 1,500 students returning to class for the first time since Wednesday’s blast, Superintendent Marty Crawford said the high school and middle school could also be razed.


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For Obama, a testing and emotional week defined by
terror and political defeat

WASHINGTON (AP) -- For President Barack Obama, one of his most wrenching White House weeks saw the fresh specter of terrorism and the first crushing political defeat of his new term, and the more emotional side of a leader often criticized for appearing clinical or detached.

The events presented sharp tests for a president committed to an ambitious agenda in the limited window offered by a second term.

There was the challenge to reassure a nervous nation about threats at home and to keep the rest of his legislative goals on track after the Senate rejected gun control measures that had become his top priority.

"This was a tough week," Obama said late Friday, shortly after authorities captured the second suspect in the Boston Marathon bombings.

The Boston Marathon explosions and the gun votes overshadowed other events that would have captivated the country and consumed the White House during almost any other week.

Despite new technology, Border Patrol relies on old skills to count how many elude capture

CAMPO, Calif. (AP) -- Richard Gordon is one of the Border Patrol’s best at spotting the smallest human traces in pursuit of people who enter the U.S. illegally from Mexico: dusty footprints, torn cobwebs, broken twigs, overturned pebbles.

It’s a skill he has sharpened over the last 16 years in the craggy, shrub-covered mountains east of San Diego and one that is taking on new importance as gauging border security has emerged as a potential stumbling block to an overhaul of the U.S. immigration system.

With lawmakers demanding more measures of border security and assurances that massive spending increases on enforcement yield results, Gordon’s skill, known as "sign-cutting," will likely get greater focus because it is the Border Patrol’s dominant technique to count those who escape capture.

It’s not the new cameras, sensors and airborne radars.

"You can have all the technology but we’re still back to sign-cutting," said Gordon, 46, who works in the same sparsely populated area where he grew up hunting deer and quail. "It’s tried, and it’s true, and it works."

Syrian opposition calls on Hezbollah to withdraw fighters from supporting regime

BEIRUT (AP) -- The Syrian opposition called on Hezbollah to withdraw its fighters from the country, as activists said regime troops supported by gunmen linked to the Lebanese Shiite militant group battled rebels Sunday for control of a string of villages near the Lebanon-Syria border.

Outside the capital, Damascus, activists said they had documented the names of 80 people killed in a government assault on the area over the past five days.

The Syrian National Coalition -- the main Western-backed opposition group -- warned that Hezbollah involvement in Syria’s civil war could lead to greater risks in the area, and urged the Lebanese government to "adopt the necessary measures to stop the aggression of Hezbollah" and to control the border to "protect civilians in the area."

The statement, posted on the Coalition’s Facebook page, coincided with a surge in fighting around the contested town of Qusair in Syria’s Homs province near the frontier with Lebanon.

Over the past two weeks, the Syrian military, supported by a Hezbollah-backed militia, has pushed to regain control of the border area. The region is strategic because it links Damascus with the Mediterranean coastal enclave that is the heartland of President Bashar Assad’s Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.

Attacks kill 9 in Afghanistan; security group says 2013 on
track to be very violent year

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) -- Insurgents killed six police officers at a checkpoint and a suicide bomber killed three civilians at a shopping bazaar in separate attacks Sunday in eastern Afghanistan, while an independent security group warned 2013 is on track to be one of the most violent years of the war.

April already has been the deadliest month this year for security forces and Afghan and foreign civilians as the U.S. and other countries prepare to end their combat mission by the end of next year. According to an Associated Press tally, 222 people have been killed in violence around the nation this month, including Sunday’s nine fatalities.

The Taliban ambushed the checkpoint in the Dayak district of Ghazni province, killing six police officers, wounding one and leaving one missing, said Col. Mohammad Hussain, deputy provincial police chief. The checkpoint was manned by Afghan local police, forces recruited at the village level that are nominally under the control of the Afghan Interior Ministry.

On Friday, Taliban insurgents attacked a local police checkpoint in Andar, a district of Ghazni province neighboring Dayak. They killed 13 officers, according to Sidiq Sidiqi, the Interior Ministry spokesman.

The second attack on Sunday hit Paktika province, which borders Ghazni. A suicide bomber detonated his explosives in a shopping bazaar around midday, killing three people and wounding five civilians and two police officers, said Mokhlis Afghan, the spokesman for the provincial governor. Among the dead was Asanullah Sadat, who stepped down as the district’s governor two years ago.

World finance leaders say growth still weak in global economy

WASHINGTON (AP) -- While world finance leaders say the global economy has improved slightly this year, they said the outlook for the future was uneven with growth and job creation still too weak.

The policy-setting committee for the 188-nation International Monetary Fund said governments need to act decisively to nurture a lasting recovery and restore the resiliency of the global economy.

But the major economies could not reach a consensus on what policies to follow as they move forward.

"The commodity that is in shortest supply now is confidence," Tharman Shanmugaratnam, the chairman of the IMF panel and Singapore’s finance minister told reporters. "We need to regenerate optimism and confidence."

The World Bank announced that its steering committee had approved a proposal to establish the goal of eliminating extreme poverty by 2030. The bank defines this condition as living on less than $1.25 a day. The bank estimates there are 1.2 billion people living in extreme poverty, mainly in sub-Saharan Africa and south Asia.

A spokeswoman for Oxfam , the anti-poverty group, Emma Seery, said while the World Bank target was welcome "we are concerned that it will duck the tough choices needed to reach it."

The weekend began with two days of discussions among finance leaders of the Group of 20 nations, composed of major economies such as the United States, Germany and Japan and fast-growing developing nations like China, Brazil and India. The meetings of the IMF and its sister lending institution, The World Bank, followed.

The finance ministers tried to show they were cooperating even though they did not resolve differences that surfaced after an initially flawed bailout of Cyprus in March. The banking troubles on the Mediterranean island renewed fears that a prolonged European debt crisis still posed risks to the global economy.

The U.S. urged European nations to scale back their austerity programs of spending cuts and tax increases in favor of more stimulus to boost growth and combat high unemployment in countries such as Spain and Greece.

But the push was met with resistance from Germany and Britain, which believe heavily indebted European nations must reduce their debts to give markets confidence and keep government borrowing costs low. In the end, the financial leaders sought to bridge the difference by issuing economic blueprints that left room for both the growth and austerity camps to claim victory.

The G-20 nations did reject proposals to issue hard targets for reducing budget deficits, a victory for the United States and Japan, which had argued for more flexibility.

Journalist killed in Somali
capital; 5th this year

MOGADISHU, Somalia (AP) -- A Somali radio station editor says unidentified gunmen have shot dead a journalist in Mogadishu, the fifth to be killed in the country his year.

Mohamed Abdullahi Haji, a news editor at the state-run radio station, said that gunmen killed Mohamed Ibrahim Rage, who worked for the station, at his home in the capital Sunday.

Working as a reporter is a dangerous job in Mogadishu. Last year, 18 media workers were killed, most in targeted killings. The government has vowed to stop attacks against journalists, but so far little action has been taken.

Last week suicide bombers and gunmen attacked Mogadishu’s main court complex, killing 35 people, including one journalist. Last month, a suicide car bomber targeting Mogadishu’s intelligence chief killed six people, including a radio report.